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Tavares and beyond: five years of possible free agents

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While NHL fans get to brag about the unpredictability of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA fans score a decided advantage when it comes to off-the-court/ice sizzle.

More often than not, hockey fans can only imagine seismic shifts like LeBron James’ latest “decision.”

(One bold exception is the profoundly dysfunctional Ottawa Senators, who provided us with hockey’s answer to the strange Bryan Colangelo burner account scandal by way of that drama between the significant others of Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman.)

So, like the Toronto Raptors watching Lebron mercilessly crush their playoff dreams, hockey fans grow accustomed to seeing fun spending sprees fizzle away. Could it happen again with John Tavares?

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Tavares and his representatives are “focused” on negotiating with the New York Islanders right now. Pierre LeBrun was also involved in that segment, and rained on our speculative parades even more:

Allow a simple response to the Tavares sweepstakes possibly ending before it truly begins: boo. Boo to that.

Now, sure, there’s the chance that business picks up in July. Maybe sooner. Still, reports like those above remain discouraging for those of us who want to grab the popcorn.

[Which teams would benefit the most from potential buyouts?]

It actually inspires a fun activity: let’s go over the next few years and ponder some of the big names who could auction off their services.

Naturally, because hockey, this list factors in the sad, cruel likelihood that the biggest names will bow out, so there are consolation prizes. Also, this list focuses mainly on would-be UFAs, as RFAs hold very little leverage (thanks, CBA).

This summer (2018)

Biggest fish who might not make it: Tavares

Would begging help?

/kneels

The fascinating Ilya Kovalchuk talk is a helpful reminder of how rare it is for an impact NHL player to explore free agency. At 27, Tavares figures to be exactly that. Despite all the turbulence surrounding the Islanders, Tavares generated 84 points in 82 games during 2017-18, the second-best output of his career.

He’s also put to rest any real worries about some of the freak injuries he suffered. Tavares played 82 games twice in the last four seasons, only missing nine games since 2014-15.

Tavares hitting the market wouldn’t just change the fate of a team. If he landed in the right direction, it could create a new contender. You simply don’t see a franchise center become available often; this would be as close as the NHL gets to a Lebron-type seismic shift.

Which means he’ll probably kill all the drama with an extension soon. *Grumble*

Big name with a better chance to actually hit the market: John Carlson

Before more grumbling commences, there’s this:

There’s evidence that Carlson struggles at time in his own end, particularly stretching back to before this past season. After a dazzling 68 points and a Stanley Cup victory, someone’s paying up, and it should be fun to witness that situation develop. You just do not see defensemen of his ilk hit it big very often, either.

Now that you mention it, hopefully a risky Carlson deal doesn’t scare off teams from next year’s incredible crop.

Some other notables: Joe Thornton, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, and Paul Stastny.

[Six players who should stay put this summer, six who should move]

Next summer (2019)

Biggest possible names: Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty

For some, Karlsson is the top draw (myself included). Old-school types might claim that Karlsson “can’t play defense,” even after he managed to drag a mediocre Senators team to within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final (yes, that was only a year ago). For those types – who also probably believe that Alex Ovechkin “just figured things out this year” – then Doughty is the jewel.

The truth is that both are really, really good.

They also both carry some mileage into their next deals after being remarkable bargains, as they’re both 28 and log big minutes. There’s a strong chance that Doughty might just re-sign with Los Angeles, possibly as soon as this summer, and the same could be true regarding Oliver Ekman-Larsson and the Coyotes. (Preemptive boo.)

Now, Ryan Ellis and the Predators? That could be fascinating.

These guys won’t become UFAs … right?: Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Tyler Seguin.

Buckle up, Blue Jackets fans.

Other interesting possibilities

  • Marc-Andre Fleury: He could finish his career with Vegas, but this past season could really drive up his asking price, and his age (already 33) could scare the Golden Knights off.
  • Pekka Rinne: By this time, you’d think Juuse Saros would be ready to carry the torch in Nashville.
  • Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski: Two Sharks centers with intriguing futures. Pavelski, in particular, could age out (turns 34 on July 11).
  • Matt Duchene: With the mess Ottawa’s in, who knows? Duchene leaving would really make a bumpy trade look even worse. Yikes.
  • Blake Wheeler: Winnipeg’s going to need to pay Patrik Laine, Connor Hellebuyck, and Kyle Connor. Could an under-the-radar star get squeezed out in the process?

Summer of 2020

Biggest fish to land: Avoiding a lockout or limiting the damage.

*sigh*

Interesting possibilities

  • Roman Josi: David Poile is responsible for some salary cap wizardry, yet at some point, the Predators are going to need to make some choices.
  • Nicklas Backstrom: Already at 30, and with Braden Holtby also slated for possible free agency during the summer of 2020 (let’s assume Holtby re-signs), it remains to be seen if Washington can/will retain the Swedish center. He deserves an upgrade from that $6.7 million cap hit, one way or another.
  • Corey Crawford: Currently at 33 and the Blackhawks remain in a perpetual cap crunch. Hmm.
  • Holtby: Just in case the Capitals try to save money in net.
  • Tyson Barrie and Torey Krug: Two explosive scoring defensemen who are a bit underrated. Krug, in particular, might be tough for the Bruins to retain. Justin Faulk deserves a mention, too, although his situation could be very different in mere weeks for all we know.
  • Alex Galchenyuk: Will his inevitable split from Montreal happen before free agency 2020?

Even more aimless speculation in later years …

Summer 2021

Aging stars: Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, Dustin Byfuglien.

Intriguing prime-age names: Dougie Hamilton, Jaden Schwartz, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Devan Dubnyk.

Summer 2022

Last chances at big deals? Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, P.K. Subban, Claude Giroux, Kris Letang, Patrice Bergeron.

Intriguing prime-age names: Johnny Gaudreau, Filip Forsberg, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones.

***

Interesting stuff, right?

Of course, many of those players are likely to sign extensions, in most cases with their current teams. The same could be said for players who get traded to new teams. Some of the older guys might just retire. Restricted free agents may also add some spice to summers.

There’s even a chance that a new CBA could open the door for more movement in the future.

Looking at the lists above, it’s easy to envision fun scenarios, even if recent hockey history suggests blander solutions. Then again, re-signing players like these could force other important players to get traded, so team-building nerds should have something to chew on even if free agency isn’t as fun in reality as it can be in our heads.

Cap Friendly was an excellent resource for this post. Their tools can help you go on your own dorky hockey adventures, possibly unearthing more interesting names. (You’d need to wait until the summer of 2023 to get excited about Nathan MacKinnon, though.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

No big moves needed as Predators primed for another Cup run

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Another summer is here, and the warm months wouldn’t be complete without hearing fresh P.K. Subban trade rumors.

This isn’t exactly all that surprising, of course. The Nashville Predators’ defenseman is one of the league’s premier rearguards and comes with the possibility of quite the haul in return in any deal swung for him. And he just seems to have this knack for working his way into the rumor mill

Case and point: he’s on TSN’s Trade Bait board this year, and he’s inside the Top 10, just for good measure.

But while it might not come as a shock to the hockey world to see Subban’s name being thrown around in the trade winds again, there’s absolutely no reason why the Predators would want to trade one of the league’s top defenseman away from a team that remains so well-positioned in the Central Division, the Western Conference and the NHL as a whole.

Let’s review: Subban is a great defenseman that’s sound in puck possession, shot suppression and putting up points.

Naturally, Predators general manager David Poile has subsequently shot down the rumors regarding Subban, who has four years remaining on a seven year, $72 million deal with an annual cap hit of $9 million.

“You see tweets from different places, but that’s not happening,” Poile told The Athletic‘s Pierre LeBrun. “P.K. played terrific this year. He played really well. He’s a really good player. He’s one of the three candidates for the Norris Trophy. I really don’t know where this comes from.”

We’ve seen this song and dance before.

But while Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin couldn’t ultimately be believed in the end, there’s no reason to think Poile would drop that bomb in his defensive corps, one that is largely staying the same aside from Alexei Emelin becoming a unrestricted free agent.

That vaunted core on the back end — arguably the best in the NHL with Subban, Roman Josi, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis (a UFA after next season) — is all under contract

Let’s not forget that the Predators are one year removed from the Stanley Cup Final, and that they lost a tight series to the Winnipeg Jets in second round this season. And most importantly, let’s not lose track of the fact that Nashville is still in prime position to make another run this upcoming season.

Scott Hartnell is gone, but the Predators only have two other players searching for new deals — Ryan Hartman and Miikka Salomaki, both restricted free agents and filler pieces rather than key cogs. Everyone else is under contract and the Predators can look forward to Eeli Tolvanen entering the lineup next season.

Juuse Saros is an RFA in goal (and you’d have to think the Predators will want to square that one away ASAP with 35-year-old Pekka Rinne set to become a UFA next offseason) but their lineup will look quite similar to that of this past season, one which led the Predators to the 117 points and the Presidents’ Trophy during the regular season.

The Predators are sitting pretty, too, under the cap, with $7.5 million to give in its current state — a number that is expected to rise with next season’s cap being projected in the $78 million to $82 million range.

If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it. And that cliche certainly applies to the Predators this summer.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jets face quick turnaround to host Vegas in Western finals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Winnipeg Jets only got a few hours to celebrate the biggest victory in franchise history.

The Jets finished off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators 5-1 in Game 7 of their second-round series Thursday night, then quickly headed home to prepare for the opener of their first ever Western Conference final Saturday night.

”It’s too bad one of us had to be knocked off here,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. ”But night’s like tonight, you try to really soak it in and enjoy it. And then, wake up and get ready for a big game on Saturday.”

The Jets will be hosting the upstart Vegas Golden Knights in a conference final nobody predicted.

Upstart Winnipeg was swept in its only previous playoff appearance since leaving Atlanta for Canada in 2011. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, are dragging their debut season deep into the NHL calendar.

”We know what they bring, we know that they’re good, that they maybe surprised a few teams, but not really,” Jets center Paul Stastny said. ”They had 109 points. In a sense they play like us, they have a lot of depth, and they can roll four lines, and they have good, puck-moving D. So we’re going to have our hands full for sure.”

Stastny had one of two Winnipeg goals 2:06 apart in the first period to chase Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne for the third and final time in their series. Stastny finished with two goals and an assist, and Mark Scheifele finished with two goals, giving him a postseason record seven road goals in a single series .

Tyler Myers also scored. Wheeler and rookie Kyle Connor each added two assists, and Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who improved to 4-0 coming off a loss this postseason, made 36 saves to outduel Rinne in the showdown between Vezina Trophy finalists.

”A year in a goalie’s life makes such a big difference,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said of his 24-year-old goalie. ”In the third period, I think had one bobbled puck that got away from him, but everything else after that he was knocking it to the corner, he was clearing the front. He looked calm.”

This was the first Game 7 for the Winnipeg/Atlanta franchise, and the Jets dominated the Predators to win in Nashville for the third time in the series. They outskated the Predators and kept the puck on their sticks much of the game, even as Nashville outshot them 21-7 in the third period.

By the time Scheifele scored his record-setting goal into an empty net with 2:33 left, the Jets had left no doubt this was their series.

Now they head back to Winnipeg, where the Jets posted the NHL’s best home record in the regular season. They have a good idea how much this next series means as Canada’s last team still standing and even more special for Winnipeg after the town lost its first NHL team to Arizona.

Wheeler said they’re thrilled their fans get to have a celebration.

”Our fans have been with us filling up our building for seven years and we haven’t always had the most success, but they’ve always been supportive all over the city,” Wheeler said. ”I don’t think I’ve heard a negative comment in seven years. So now, we’re just happy to keep playing for them.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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A terrible end to a great year for Pekka Rinne

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Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne put together a terrific Vezina worthy season, but his campaign ended in disappointment in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets.

Rinne got the hook at the midway point of the first period after he allowed two incredibly soft goals on seven shots. Head coach Peter Laviolette had seen enough at that point and he decided it was time to go with Juuse Saros.

“I feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said, per the Tennessean. “Tough to swallow, tough to understand. I can’t point out anything. Felt good, and no injuries and totally healthy. But total ups and downs throughout the playoffs. The biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight.”

As cruel as it might be to point the finger at one player, it’s justified in this case. Rinne can’t give up the opening goal to Tyler Myers, he just can’t. Putting his team in a 2-0 hole certainly didn’t get things started on the right foot, either.

It’s a cruel end to a rather stellar season for the 35-year-old netminder, as he accumulated a 42-13-4 record with a 2.31 goals-against-average and a .927 save percentage during the regular season. Those numbers dipped significantly in the playoffs.

Since Game 1 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final against Pittsburgh, he has a 2.99 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage in 19 postseason contests. But the most surprising thing about Rinne’s disappointing playoff run is how much he struggled at Bridgestone arena:

Things change quickly in the NHL. As good as Rinne was during an 82-game stretch, there’s a chance that his time in Nashville could be coming to an end. That probably won’t happen next season because the veteran is under contract for one more year at $7 million.

Saros is scheduled to become a restricted free agent this summer and he’ll command a raise from the $692,500 he made this season. The Preds will have to make a significant financial commitment to their younger goaltender, which could signal the end of Rinne’s tenure as their starter after the 2018-19 season.

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Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Nashville Predators failed to live up to expectations

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The Nashville Predators had it all… until they didn’t.

Coming into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Predators seemingly had laid the groundwork for a redemption campaign that would see them travel to the Stanley Cup Final again, and maybe even snag the hardware this time.

They owned the best record in the regular season, possessed the soon-to-be Vezina Trophy winner and trotted out the best defensive corps in the NHL in the opinion of many.

They had the experience. They had tasted the cruelty of losing at the last possible juncture. You have to lose before you can win, right? At least according to sports’ book of unwritten rules.

Nashville had a deep team, capable of scoring, defending and stopping goals — a team bred for success and with a roster chalk full of resumes to back it up — and better than nearly anyone.

Nearly.

Nearly, because on Thursday night the Predators’ season, with all of its expectations, the hopes and dreams and everything they’d learned from a year ago, ceased to exist.

A 5-1 loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round meant Nashville wouldn’t reach the Final. There would be no redemption. Only questions, tears and hopes vanished.

The first finger to be wagged in a particular direction starts in the crease.

Pekka Rinne‘s Vezina-caliber regular season got lost as Nashville traveled into the playoffs and never really found its way back.

“I feel very much responsible for our season ending at this point,” Rinne said on Thursday after allowing two first-period goals and getting pulled in record-time just 10:47 into the opening frame. “Tough to swallow, tough to understand. I can’t point out anything. Felt good, and no injuries and totally healthy. But total ups and downs throughout the playoffs. The biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down, and that’s what happened tonight. That’s tough to swallow.”

Rinne, 35 and scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after next season, struggled mightily at times and was on mediocre (save for Game 6) at others.

At Bridgestone Arena, where Nashville had been so good during the regular campaign, Rinne was at his worst, losing three of our in the series — pulled twice (and three times total) — and posting a horrendous .848 save percentage.

Fingers pointed squarely at Rinne alone would be crass, as P.K. Subban adequately pointed out after the game.

“Critics who want to criticize (Rinne) don’t know what they’re talking about,” Subban said as he vehemently defended his goaltender. “I don’t care if they played in the NHL or not. He’s the backbone of our hockey club. He’s one of the main reasons why we’re here. Could we all have been better tonight? Yeah. We didn’t do enough. I felt at times that they had their whole team going; we didn’t. I mean, it comes down to that. I think everybody could have played a lot better, could’ve given more. I’m sick and tired of people always talking about (Rinne).

“He’s the backbone of this team. He’s the reason we’re here. When you talk about top goaltenders in the League, it’s him, it’s (Montreal Canadiens’ Carey) Price, it’s (Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei) Vasilevskiy, it’s (Winnipeg Jets’ Connor) Hellebuyck. It’s these guys. You’re lucky to have one of them. We have to look at this as a team and get better as a team. Like I said, we have a lot of time to think about it, rest and recover and be ready to win a championship next year.”

If they do, their whole team will need to show up. Consistently. Like Subban said, the 18 skaters in front of Rinne didn’t hold up their end of the bargain either.

While Winnipeg’s top line showed up in the series — the trio of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor combined for 28 points over the series’ seven games — Nashville’s best showed up in spurts, and spurts don’t win series.

“Yeah I mean, it’s a dangerous group over there, you know?” defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “They won for a reason, they’ve got a lot of dangerous players, guys that got 40 goals and 90 points or whatever. So we have to be, as a group, responsible defensively as well as offensively. I mean, Game 7. It’s that close of a (series).”

It was.

But Nashville met its match.

The team came into the playoffs with 117 points in the regular season and a Presidents’ Trophy to show for their efforts. None of that matters though, its place now is only for context when talking about how and why it all went wrong.

In a nutshell, Nashville’s vaunted defense had no answer for Winnipeg’s rocket-fuelled offense. Nashville’s immovable object moved. The team that allowed the second-fewest goals in the regular season allowed the Jets to come into their barn and drop 19 on them to tie an NHL record. When the onslaught began, there was simply no answer to the unstoppable force.

And so it ended.

Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, now 5-3 in Game 7s as a bench boss, didn’t need many words when he offered a simple truth after the game.

“We ran into a good team, and they’re moving on.”

Indeed.

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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck